How to set up an aquarium with plastic plants


This amazing aquascape has been set up using only plastic plants. Impressed? Jeremy Gay sings the praises of the Sydeco plastic plant range from Rosewood and organises a step-by-step guide to show them at their realistic best.

I like to think that we at PFK headquarters represent a broad church and are open minded to all kinds of fishkeeping. Be it a biotope, nature aquarium, hi-tech reef tank, first community tank or simple breeding tank, we embrace each one, as all have their appeal and individual merits.

However, it wasn’t until I started to list all the benefits of a tropical community tank with artificial plants that I realised just how good these things are  — and we got aquascaping expert Dean Barratt from Sydeco to show us how good his company’s range look too!

The benefits

Plastic plants may be rubbished by some purists and, if I’m going down the biotope route, I will of course try to use natural products wherever possible. However, artificial plants definitely have their place, not just with beginners but more seasoned aquarists too.

Not being live, artificial plants don’t need specialised lighting, fertilisers, nutritious substrates or CO2. Being weighted, the Sydeco plants don’t even need a substrate — making them perfect for quarantine or hospital tanks.

They aren’t fussy about water either, so can be used to great effect with no detriment to water conditions. They’re easy to clean too, meaning a simple wipe with an algae pad, brush or spray with the shower head will remove any algae and detritus, and make them look as good as new again.

We know of tanks that have been home to this type of décor for six years or more and, with regular maintenance, look as good as they did the day they were set up.

On the subject of algae, these are plants on which you can actually unleash nature’s full algae eating crew with no fear of the plants getting eaten. Snails, suckermouthed catfish, shrimp and algae-eating sucking loach will all scrub them clean and also appreciate the cover and protection they give them.

Got fish species that eat plants? Silver dollars? Large cichlids? Plastic plants are the answer and, if you think about it, plant-eating fish naturally live among plants in the wild — so there’s no stark, essentially plant free and unnatural home for them. I think you get the picture. Artificials have many benefits…


Plastic plants have never been synonymous with great tank layouts, but look again at this beauty Dean created. We see many of the top aquascapes from all over the world and can tell you that this is a top aquascape — despite being one that Dean literally threw together!

The key to making an artificial aquascape look good would seem to be to make it look real and follow standard aquascaping practices. The moment you add a sunken galleon or action air ornament the illusion is shattered.

Just don’t even consider them! Instead use nice pieces of wood and nice gravels, as you would if using real plants.  

Dean modelled this one loosely on a Dutch style planted tank – a trend made popular in Holland whereby plants are arranged in groups, placed to complement each other’s colours and textures, and gently cascade from tall ones at the back of the tank to shorter ones in the front.

This isn’t a sales pitch either, but why not use lots of plants to create an effective look! A higher than expected initial outlay may be necessary to produce a look that’s a cut above the rest, but potentially you may never have to spend on replacing décor again.

Now the fish...

Every onlooker loved the look of this tank and at first I was going to go down the subconscious route of fake plants, ‘fake fish’ like goldfish, or brightly coloured livebearers like golden Sailfin mollies. Dean advised against it though, as to fully complement such an aquascape and continue the illusion of naturalness he advised a large, single species shoal such as Rummynose tetras, Cardinal tetras or Boeseman’s rainbowfish.

After a trip to our local aquatic store we settled for Emperor tetras and are really pleased with the result. A high number of individuals will always look visually more effective than a menagerie of different species and colours.

Framing the masterpiece

Don’t underestimate the power of the tank itself. Juwel tanks are quality products and you the readers seem to think so too, judging by the number of  happy owners who get in touch with me.

We opted for the timeless classic that is the Rio 240, a four footer (1.2m) in black. As tank trim fashions go, black is back and nothing frames an aquascape like a black trim top and bottom with black silicone each side.

Topped off with some black gravel from Unipac, this scape looks the business and I for one began to seriously envy Dean’s creation and its contents.

Finishing touches

Height is given to one side with another Amazonia plant, while front space is plugged with the Waterball maxi plants and Nano leaves, and mossballs shaped and cut with scissors.

While taller plants are bent to shape, Dean bushes out shorter ones to provide a wider coverage and more natural look. More gravel ensures that nothing is exposed that shouldn’t be.

Create your own plastic plant tank

1. Selecting your tank

Dean opts for a Juwel Rio 240 that provides superior viewing depth when compared to many smaller aquaria. Given the array of colours to be utilised, a dark tank and cabinet is chosen, together with a dark, black background. The dark gravel is cleaned and wood pre-soaked to minimise the leaching of any tannins.

2. Adding the gravel

The black, quartzy gravel is added to the tank and spread evenly. It plays a key role in the aquascape and will be banked and set to shape as the display forms.

Given that these plants are not real, gravel size is not important, although, in most cases, finer substrates are more aesthetically pleasing.

3. Positioning the wood

Following the off-centre ‘golden ratio’ of aquascaping, around 5kg of Tropics Décor Wood is arranged. The height of the wood will be later exploited by both breaking up the planting and creating a platform on which some plastic plants will be tied — in much the same way as Java ferns often are.

4. Now for the background plants

Higher plants are added, in this case the Maxi-sized Seagrasses and Acorus taking pride of place along the back. Rosewood water ferns are added to the aquascaped wood, giving an impression of height without imposing depth. Unlike real plants these are weighted and can often simply be rested on the wood or wedged into crevices.

5. Boosting the plants/gravel

More kilos of gravel are added and moulded to shape along the sides and back. Rosewood red Amazonia plants break up the abundance of green and the first foreground plants are worked along the front.

Care is taken at this stage not to hide the wood and Dean assesses the focal points, adjusting as necessary.

6. Plugging the gaps

Introducing more red with Rosewood Atoll Maxi plants, Dean builds up the tiered effect with lower offerings of club moss and jungle plants that frame the bigger, brighter centrepiece. Plants are clumped together rather than scattered, creating a more even and less confusing display. Even shadows are assessed on their merits.

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